The worrying disconnection between the scientific community and society at large has been well documented. The last two decades saw much of the fall-out: promising technologies such as stem cells and GMOs were attacked by mass media and had to go on the defense. Major research infrastructures had to fight in order to obtain political support and many projects in big and small science had to be abandoned because of lack of funding. If one considers that public spending in scientific research is on average less than 2% of GDP in OECD countries, it is worrying that politicians who want to cut deficits see science budgets as a legitimate target. Why is that?
When I was working as External Relations Officer for the European Bioinformatics Institute I was often challenged by Members of the European Parliament that scientific goals “did not capture the imagination as they used to do”. “Give us something like the trip to the Moon”, said one MEP to me when I tried to explain the benefits of a pan-European research infrastructure for bioinformatics.
In democratic countries politicians are in the business of persuading their constituents of their political choices. When constituents, in classifying societal needs, place science in a low position, even scientifically-minded ministers and parliamentarians will find it hard to argue for it. Pushing a scientific agenda must therefore take into consideration the following:
- Perception of science in the public
- Position of media with regards to science
- Channels and method of communication to engage the public
Survey data from sources, such as Eurobarometer, show a mixed picture with regards to the public’s perception of science and scientists. In my opinion, the most significant message is this: in the EU citizens trust science and scientists but feel that science is moving too fast and that they have no time to digest it. Conclusion: Scientists ought to do more in order to engage citizens. Public engagement must become a requirement for working scientists.
The media are, generally speaking, neutral to science. What interests them are stories that will attract the attention of audiences. This is often going amiss with the majority of science communicators, or with scientists who earnestly try their best in talking about their work. Alas, being excited about your project does not make an interesting story. To get the media’s attention science must be framed as an interesting story; narrative is key to explaining and engaging. Scientists and science communicators must learn from literature, novels, plays or essays. And they must be proactive. For example, if you are a researcher working in creating artificial life don’t wait till the x tabloid attacks your research as “unholy” or “demonic” or “whatever” – work with an experienced science journalist or writer to put together a story that will explain artificial life in terms of what people are familiar with – and engage.
Stories and narratives will provide the content for bridging the gap between scientists and the media. But they are not enough. We have a problem here of two distinct communication networks with very little connectivity between them. Scientific communication networks are very well developed, and so are the media. But there is little connection between them. This connection must be forged and fostered. Science journalists and science writers in general media are the natural nodes to build this global intra-network between science and media.
Finally, and most importantly, scientists must realize that our democracies devolve more and more, which means that citizens will have increasing powers in decision-making. This political devolution manifests in parliaments consulting citizen groups about legislation, in NGOs pushing agendas through the legislative process, etc. Leaving the job of informing citizens about science to the media is not enough. Science communication must change and become more like political communication: not only telling constituents what is good for them (e.g. one more telescope) but listening to what they have to say too.
Science and science funding undergo fundamental changes and scientists must learn to adapt.